Hepatitis A is an inflammation of the liver caused by a viral infection. The most common liver viruses are labeled Hepatitis A, B or C. Each is a different virus which has a distinct behavior and genetic make-up. Each is also transmitted (or "caught") in a different way.
Hepatitis A virus is found in the stool of infected people, who then can contaminate other things if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after using the bathroom. The virus can be transferred to food by a cook or food server, and can contaminate water sources, countertops or other surfaces. If a healthy person comes into contact with this, they can be infected. This explains periodic outbreaks from a restaurant or school cafeteria. It also explains why the risks are higher in settings where good hygiene habits are lacking, such as homes for mentally impaired patients or in schools with younger children.
It usually takes about 2-7 weeks after exposure before someone develops symptoms of the infection, with 4 weeks being the average. These symptoms may be rather vague, and can include: fatigue, nausea, fever, loss of appetite, pain under the right side of ribcage and a general feeling of being unwell. Eventually, patients may develop jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), dark urine and itchy skin.
Diagnosis is based on a combination of symptoms, examination and blood testing. This is a disease that is reportable to the public health department, who will try to track down the source of infection to prevent further spread.
There is no treatment that actually cures Hepatitis A. Most people gradually recover on their own at home as long as they rest, eat properly, completely avoid alcohol and avoid medications which can damage the liver (these should be discussed with your doctor). A small percentage of people may require supportive care in the hospital for brief periods of time, to provide such things as IV fluids and/or adequate nutrition. Most people recover completely within 3 to 6 months, though about 15% of people may have relapsing symptoms for up to a year. Once you have had Hepatitis A, you are immune and cannot get it again. It does not become chronic in the body as can happen with Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C. In rare circumstance, people can die from Hepatitis A, but usually this is seen in the elderly or in people who have other serious health conditions.
There is a vaccine for Hepatitis A which provides immunity, and can prevent infection. It is given as two injections, six to twelve months apart. This vaccine is available to anyone, but is especially recommended to those at high risk such as health care workers, food handlers, day care providers and for people traveling to areas with a high rate of Hepatitis A. Other important preventative measures are CAREFUL HAND WASHING, and proper food preparation and handling.
If you believe you have been exposed to the Hepatitis A virus, or have had close contact with a person known to have Hepatitis A, contact you doctor. If you have not been previously vaccinated, there are some post-exposure treatments available which may prevent the infection, if given in a timely manner. These may also be administered to family and other household contacts. If you are already infected, proper diagnosis can give you the help and information you need to make a safe and complete recovery. It can also help track the original source of the disease, so that spread to others can be prevented.